April 25, 2006

Books that Every Educator Should Read

I took this photograph recently in Rochefeller Center in New York City. Great architecture has always inspired me. On one level, the technical genious required to make these monumental structures is amazing. It requires a great deal of expertise to determine what is the best design and materials to withstand the slowly (and sometimes acutely) destructive elements of nature over years, decades, and even centuries. On another level, the artistic and creative genious that is required to make a functional structure into something that is aesthetically pleasing and evokes an emotional response is a gift. I think great teachers are like great architects. Creating great structures requires not only technical expertise but also a cultural sensitivity, an awareness of the surroundings, and an ability to visualize a potential that does not yet exist.

Every educator (who takes their vocation seriously) probably has two or three books that have shaped and inspired them as teachers. Here is a list of books that have influenced me the most over the past year:

What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain (Harvard University Press 2004). This short, inexpensive (less than $15 thru Amazon.com) and inspiring little book was a delight to read. While the book cover is a bit goofy, Bain takes a scholarly (but accessible) approach to the subject matter. The bottom line - the best colleges teachers know and love the subject matter they teach ... engage their students to think about the most relevant questions that matter ... and have confidence that their students can (and will) meet high standards.

The Courage to Teach. Exploring the Inner Landscape of A Teacher's Life by Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass 1998) is a book about the vulnerability of being a teacher and the importance of integrity and being whole. Great teaching is not achieved by employing superior pedagogical techniques but rather in developing self-awareness and connectedness to one's subject and students. My favorite chapter is entitled "Knowing in Community." Truth - according to Palmer - is a reality created by a dynamic web of communal relationships between "knowers." In the community of truth, there is no ultimate authority - but rather knowing, learning, and teaching is a dialogue among a community of people (knowers) who approach a common subject in a shared way (e.g. they communicate in a shared language, share rules of observation, and interpret information in a similar manner). It is only after we (teachers) abandon our need to be the ultimate authority that we can truly engage students to become members of the community of truth.

The Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learning, and Learning to Teach by Lee S. Shulman (Jossey-Bass 2004) is collection of essays (as the title would imply) on a wide range of topics related to pedagogy. Dr. Shulman is currently the President of the Carnegie Foundation - a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of teaching - and previously a professor in psychology at Stanford University (1982-1996) and a professor in educational psychology and medical education at Michigan State University. These essays span his career. Again, the focus is not on technique but the art and craft of teaching.